SACRAMENTO — San Diego County's effort to obtain state permission for private companies to run a jail or probation camp appears headed into a solid wall of opposition in the Legislature.
A powerful coalition of law enforcement authorities, civil liberties advocates and public employee labor unions has so far been able to block all such proposed legislation.
And recent interviews with legislators, lobbyists and others indicate that there is little prospect for change any time soon.
"There's an issue of principle here," said Andrew Baron, Sacramento lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which opposes the idea. "So far, we have been able to consistently defeat these measures, and my intention is to continue to do so."
Still, San Diego officials say they are serious about seeking permission to, at the least, allow private enterprise to bid on a contract for building and managing a minimum-security probation or jail camp for prisoners convicted of misdemeanors.
Even if they get the authority to involve the private sector, county supervisors said they might use it only as an incentive to make county-run programs more efficient.
"I don't think going private is essential," said Supervisor Brian Bilbray. "I think having the option is essential for efficiency. Bureaucracies just work better when they've got somebody competing with them."
Supervisor Susan Golding, who since taking office in 1985 has pushed for private contracts whenever possible in county government, said she sees no reason to exclude the criminal justice system from that trend.
"Government should bid against the private sector if we have the opportunity," Golding said. "It creates a much more careful look at government operations."
The supervisors, after holding an extensive conference on the issue last fall, voted to seek state approval for a pilot project to involve one San Diego facility, most likely a 285-bed camp planned for East Otay Mesa.
The county believes it needs the state's permission because of a provision in California law requiring county sheriffs to accept for confinement anyone committed to their custody. Although many convicted criminals are now released by the sheriff to the Probation Department and to privately operated work-furlough programs, local and state lawyers have ruled that counties are not free under current law to let private companies manage jails and locked probation camps.
That makes the counties the only criminal justice authority unable to deal freely with the private sector.
The federal government, for example, has hired private contractors to run detention facilities for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, which sends aliens to the privately run centers while deportation proceedings are pending.
The state also contracts out: A private firm has been retained to operate two centers, including one on East Otay Mesa, for ex-convicts who violate the conditions of their parole.
But before the county can do the same, it must run the gantlet of interests in the capital that have vowed to oppose private contracting at every turn.
In the past three years, at least three bills have been introduced to give counties the power to hire private companies to run minimum-security jails. Each has failed.
L.A. County Proposal Shelved
Just last week, Los Angeles County, which is usually considered the most powerful local government agency in the state, put on hold its latest effort to win permission to operate a pilot project. The Los Angeles-sponsored bill, which was defeated once last year, was scheduled to be reconsidered Tuesday by the Senate Judiciary Committee but was shelved without a vote.
That measure faltered despite provisions in it requiring that:
- Private contractors meet the same state standards for construction and services as county-owned facilities.
- Private facilities be paid no more per inmate than the cost of public custody.
- Private contractors agree to accept full legal liability for their programs.
- The chosen contractors have a demonstrated record of efficient management and fiscal solvency.
- Authority for placing inmates in a private facility remain with the sheriff or chief probation officer.
- Staff members be held to the same standards as peace officers in matters involving searches, seizures, confessions and treatment of individuals in their custody.
"The opposition comes from so many sectors and so many forces that we just weren't able to put together anything that was acceptable," said Mark S. Zehner, a lobbyist for Los Angeles County. "We thought that a pilot program was at least a reasonable approach to trying out the proposal, but even that was strongly resisted."
Opposition to the bill came from the American Civil Liberties Union; the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Assn.; the Service Employees International Union; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and the California Probation, Parole and Correctional Assn.
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